AURORA VOTE-A-GEDDON: Ballot bungle complicates already razor-thin margins

    Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder explains the process of ballot removal in the crux of ballot counting, Nov. 7, 2019, at the Arapahoe County Election Facility.
    Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Confusion has clouded the race for Aurora mayor, making it unclear who’s won the race, and when that will ultimately be decided.

The race remains tight between candidates vying for the mayor’s seat and two city wards, as about 1,600 ballots in Adams and Arapahoe counties still need to be “cured” and 828 replacement ballots didn’t reach Denver and Aurora voters until Election Day.

The error with the delayed ballot deliveries allegedly happened when a tag that marked the ballots as “priority” fell off when they were received by the U.S. Postal Service. Those 828 ballots sat in a regional sorting facility for days. They were reportedly in Denver on Nov. 1.

“USPS did not notify our office of this issue, even though they were aware of the problem. Our state’s election model allows eligible Coloradans to vote in-person, and we are hopeful that all of these voters participated in the electoral process,” Secretary of State Jena Griswold said in a statement. ” … The USPS has failed to adequately deliver ballots, and as such, we are exploring regulatory and legislative options to prevent this from happening in the future.”

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The Secretary of State’s Office said in a news conference Friday that of those 828 delayed ballots, 664 pertained to the Aurora mayor’s race. One hundred and forty one voters with late ballots ended up voting either in person or by dropping their ballot in a box.

The delayed ballots were distributed across the metroplex, including several ZIP codes in Aurora — 80010, 80011, 80014 and 80015, among others, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office confirmed. Approximately 100 of the late replacement ballots pertained to Arapahoe County jurisdictions outside of Aurora, and 60 were tied to Denver.

Most of the people who received one of the delayed ballots had previously received an identical document, but requested a new one because the original may have been lost or soiled. However, some voters who moved to the state in the past month or recently changed their address with the state Department of Motor Vehicles had never received an original ballot, according to Judd Choate, director of the state’s Division of Elections.

“For some people, that’s the first ballot that they got,” Choate said. He did not immediately know how many people had not previously received a ballot.

The late replacement ballots were delivered to voters around 3 p.m. on Election Day, officials said. Ballots were required to be returned no later than 7 p.m.

Griswold said she learned of the quagmire on Friday morning after Postal-Union workers divulged the problem at a meeting the night before. She said that had she known about the issue on Election Day, she could have extended polling hours.

Voters who did not return a ballot will not have a chance to do so now.

Griswold said state staffers are examining potential legislation or new protocols to ensure the conundrum does not happen again. She said she has been in touch with state and federal lawmakers to draft potential bills.

“If there is someone who knows, that has the knowledge that mail-in ballots are not being delivered, they have a duty to inform,” Griswold said.

James Boxrud, a spokesman for USPS, said Postal workers made “special runs” on Tuesday to get the ballots to voters by the time polls closed.

Still, Griswold condemned the agency’s lack of communication.

“If the Post Office is unable to follow their own processes to deliver mail-in ballots on time, if they realize that there is a problem enough to call all the mail deliverers back in to grab the ballots to rush them out, I think they could notify us,” she said. “And this lack of notification has detrimental results. We could have asked  a judge to expand polling hours. We can’t do that now.”

As of 3:30 p.m. Friday, 281 votes separated mayoral candidates Omar Montgomery and Mike Coffman. Montgomery told the Sentinel he has no plans to concede until every ballot is counted. Ballots that had signature or other problems will be finalized next week.

Griswold said the delayed ballots theoretically would not have affected the outcome of the city’s mayoral race.

“If you look at the margins and make several assumptions … that the turnout was the same as the county, it does not look like it would have affected (the race),” she said. “But you have to make various assumptions to to get there.”

Voter turnout in Arapahoe County currently sits around 43 percent for this year’s elections.

Griswold clarified that state officials have no indication that any Arapahoe County officials were tied to the replacement ballot dilemma.

“We have no reason to believe there’s any irregularities,” she said.

However, Griswold said she sent state staffers to observe Arapahoe County vote counting facilities Friday morning after County Clerk Joan Lopez said an interview with 9News Nov. 7 that she didn’t know how to guarantee elections were non-partisan.

“I think the statement she made was troubling,” Griswold said.

The recent confusion is part of a nearly week-long election saga for Aurora.

The difference between the tallies puts them outside of automatic recount territory so far, but Montgomery didn’t rule out the possibility of asking, and paying for, a recount with campaign funds. 

“All options are on the table,” he said.

Automatic recounts are triggered when candidates are separated by a quantity less than or equal to half of 1 percent of the total votes cast for the candidate with the most votes.

Ward 4 candidate Juan Marcano still holds a 230-vote lead over incumbent Charlie Richardson. Ward 5 candidate Alison Coombs has a 261-lead over incumbent Bob Roth.

Neither of those races fall within the limits of automatic recount as well.

Approximately 250 ballots had to be re-sent to voters in the 255th voting precinct in Ward 5 because original ballots wrongly included the Ward IV race. Letters were sent along with the ballots to voters, according to the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder’s office.

Those ballots were sent on Oct. 18, according to the office.

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— Quincy Snowdon contributed to this report